Fresh local produce is abundant right now at Pittsburgh’s open-air farmers markets. With over 120 markets up and running citywide, there’s a place to find farm-fresh produce every day of the week. The timing is perfect for savoring fruits and veggies at their peak, and also for preserving that magical taste of summer so you can bring it back again after summer is long gone.
Here are a couple ideas for making the most of fantastic local produce, now and later, without canning or a big time commitment:
Tomatoes are a smart pick right now because you get great taste for a good price. It’s that all-too-short time of year when tomatoes really taste like tomatoes. You can smell how good they are going to taste right as you walk up to the farm stand. Last week, I found a bunch of larger, nicely ripened and weighty Romas.
I’ll use 4 or 5 to make a tomato galette. A galette is a rustic pie with rolled-up edges. Making a galette with tomatoes is a riff on a southern tomato pie, but it’s much less fussy and really forgiving. Add a fresh green salad and a icy cold Pilsner and you have a perfect summer mid-week meal.
Making a very basic tomato sauce with the rest of the tomatoes is also relatively easy and doesn’t take a lot of time. I use tomatoes and nothing more for a fresh tasting chunky purée that will go directly into Ziploc bags to be stored in the freezer for up to three months. Making this simple sauce base without any added seasoning provides lots of options for creating soups, pizzas, pasta sauces or curries later. The freezing process captures tomato flavors at their peak without changing the fresh flavor.
Basic Tomato Sauce for Freezing:
I used about 15 tomatoes which made enough puree to fill 3 quart-size freezer bags. Bring a large stock pot of water to boil over high heat. Fill a mixing bowl with ice and water and set it next to the stove. Core the tomatoes and slice a shallow “X” on the bottom of each. Working a batch at a time, put about 6 tomatoes in the boiling water for about one minute or until the skins start to peel back. Fish them out with a slotted spoon and plunge them into the ice water. Repeat the process with the rest of the tomatoes, moving the cooled tomatoes from the ice water to another mixing bowl as they cool. Use your hands and a paring knife to strip the skins from the cooled tomatoes.
Chop the peeled tomatoes into chunks and transfer to an empty stock pot. Cook the chopped tomatoes (by themselves) over medium heat for about 30-60 minutes. For a chunkier sauce, let the tomatoes break down as they cook. For a smoother sauce, you can speed up the process with an immersion blender. Alternatively, you can run your raw, peeled tomatoes through a food processor before cooking. Cook the mixture until it has the consistency you would like. Some tomatoes may be more watery and need more cooking time. Let cool completely.
Carefully transfer the sauce to freezer bags and seal. If you place the filled bags flat, side by side on a cookie sheet before you put them in the freezer, they will be easier to store once they are frozen.
Other market produce that will freeze well: fresh corn removed from the cob, berries, peas, fresh green beans.
Poblano Chili Peppers
I also found some locally grown, beautiful dark green poblano chili peppers. Poblanos are packed with peppery flavor but are milder and a little smaller than green bell peppers. I used about a dozen peppers which was enough to make one bowl of fresh roasted salsa and also one jar of pickled poblano chilis.
Roast whole peppers using tongs over an open flame gas stove (or an outdoor grill) until the skins are evenly blistered and charred. Place charred peppers into a brown paper bag and close the top for at least 15-20 minutes while they steam and cool. Once they have cooled, gently remove as much outer skin of the pepper as possible using your hands, a brush or scraping with a butter knife. Also remove the stem and seeds which should pull apart easily. It’s fine to leave some of the charred skin and a few seeds on, but the outer skin has a bitter taste and the seeds add extra heat. Keep the pepper flesh from two peppers for the salsa and cut the remaining peppers into one- or two-inch wide strips and set aside for pickling.
Fresh Roasted Poblano Chili Salsa:
For salsa, place the 2 cleaned and scraped peppers into a food processor along with 2 whole tomatoes that have been cored and the seeds removed. Add 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice and 2 teaspoons of kosher salt and pulse until just combined. Add more salt or lime juice to taste.
Pickled Roasted Poblano Chilis: The roasted pepper strips (also called “rajas”) can be pickled and stored in the refrigerator all winter long. They’ll be perfect on hoagies, burgers, pizza or steak on game day. I use David Chang’s Momofuku Master Quick Pickling Recipe that works for preserving all different kinds of fresh produce in the refrigerator without the extra steps involved in canning. First, make a brine consisting of 1 cup very hot tap water, 1/2 cup rice wine vinegar, 6 tablespoons sugar, and 2 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt. Stir until the sugar dissolves and set aside. Gently layer the strips of pepper into a canning jar packing them tightly, but leaving some room at the top (about an inch). The number of jars you use will depend on the size and the amount of peppers you have. Carefully pour the vinegar brine over the peppers until the jar is nearly full. Tighten the lid on the jar and store in the refrigerator. Refrigerated pickled peppers will keep for several months.
Other market produce that works well for refrigerator pickling: radishes, carrots, cucumbers, beets, watermelon rind. Other market produce that will freeze well: fresh corn removed from the cob, berries, peas, fresh green beans.
Want to see more from Tom O’ Connor? Check out his New to Pittsburgh: finding those hard to find things in a new city.